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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Ethics ruling raises questions

September 28. 2018 9:10PM

State Rep. Greg Hill, R-Northfield, has been one of the most aggressive advocates for school choice in the State House. He was a cosponsor of the 2012 bill that established the education tax credit, enabling businesses to reduce their state tax liability by donating to a scholarship fund for private school or home school education.

This year he was the prime sponsor of HB 1686, signed into law in June. That bill extended the education tax credit to the income and dividends tax, making it possible for those who pay that tax to direct some of the money to school choice.

When Hill thought about working for the Children's Scholarship Fund, a two-person operation that administers the programs created by the tax credit legislation, he sought an advisory opinion from the Legislative Ethics Committee. The committee's recently posted opinion could have implications for the state's "citizen legislature" that go beyond Hill's case. Because of it, Hill decided not to work for the fund.

"It's clearly spelled out in the ruling that I would be unable to submit legislation concerning school choice," said Hill. "I would be unable to testify on any issues of school choice. I would be unable to discuss school choice issues with other legislators, and would be unable to vote on school choice issues. So all of that makes it pretty clear to me that I would be an ineffective legislator."

Hill, a self-employed financial adviser, believes he could be an effective salesman for the program, especially with its expanded reach into the large population paying interest and dividend taxes. If re-elected in November, he may not have that opportunity.

"Nothing will happen until after the election," he said.

The bigger issue, according to Hill, is how the ruling could affect other lawmakers in similar situations regarding their employment.

"I would prefer that the Ethics Committee didn't rule the way it did, but I think the bigger issue is, I had the advantage of basically asking permission. Other legislators may be in the position of begging forgiveness," he said. "I would think there have to be others who are affected by this and I hope they take a look inward at what the ruling says. I would think they would have to explore their own situation with the Ethics Committee."

The New Hampshire Legislature is known as a citizens legislature for a lot of reasons, but the main one is this: Lawmakers are not paid, other than a stipend of $100 a year and mileage.

That means a lot of the state reps or senators are retired, but those who are still in the workforce are employed by companies or organizations whose prospects are affected, in good or bad ways, by the legislation and other activities of the employee serving as lawmaker.

Hill describes the ruling this way: "It seems to say that if you are a top-level executive or officer on a board, any of those things where you have either described or implied advocacy for your organization, and you're paid, that you would have difficulty operating as a legislator, and it specifically says that signing a disclosure does not waive that obligation."

Ethics Committee Chair Donna Sytek says the committee tried to thread the needle. "We recognize that a lot of people have other jobs that may be affected (by their role as legislator)," she said.

The opinion makes sure to note the distinction between "being directly compensated to advocate for an organization as in Rep. Hill's case, and merely being a member or employee of an organization or profession affected by legislation." Such clarification is helpful, since otherwise almost any working member of the Legislature would be banned from voting on or lobbying for any bill affecting the company or organization they work for.

That may not appear to be a bad idea on its surface, but such a blanket prohibition would make it almost impossible to run a citizen legislature.

"We do have a volunteer legislature, where my understanding is they rely on the expertise of the volunteers, and thus would want them to have positions in the community where they are knowledgeable about different issues," said Kate Baker, executive director of the Children's Scholarship Fund.

"I would think that if someone works in the insurance industry and is on the committee that deals with insurance, it would make sense that they should be able to share information that they know from working in the insurance industry," she said.

If Hill is correct in his analysis, the advisory opinion from the Ethics Committee may have opened more questions than it answered.

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